Troubled cop Inspector Eddie Chan (Jackie Chan) is assigned to protect property tycoon Yat Fei-Wong (Law Kar-Ying), unaware the kidnappers conspiring to abduct him are led by corrupt cop Hung (Kent Cheng). Despite Chan’s best efforts, the billionaire is indeed abducted during a chaotic chase wherein the gang callously mow down pursuing traffic cops. Ignoring police advice, Yat’s wife (Au-Yeung Pui-San) pays the ransom and transfers money to a bank in Taiwan. So Chan heads to Taipei where his heroic efforts are hindered by the trigger-happy Taiwanese police and by his duplicitous new partner, Hung.
In 1983, pharmaceutical tycoon Teddy Wang was kidnapped and chained to a bed until his wife Nina Wang met the ransom demand of eleven million dollars. Seven years later, the luckless Wang was kidnapped yet again by another group. Though his wife dutifully paid the ransom as before, the kidnappers panicked when approached by the Mainland Chinese shore patrol (kidnapping carries the death penalty in China) and dumped him into the sea. His body was never found. This real-life tragedy inspired New Wave filmmaker Kirk Wong to develop the gritty and uncompromising Crime Story as a vehicle for Jet Li. The project stalled when Jet briefly withdrew from the film industry following the murder of his manager by triads, but then secured the surprise services of an even bigger star: Jackie Chan, essaying his first dramatic role since the excellent but low-grossing Heart of the Dragon (1985).
Subduing his natural exuberance, Chan eases into the tone of the movie with an edgy performance that secured him a second Best Actor win at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards. He may not stray too far from his established heroic persona, but the plot places him under unprecedented levels of psychological pressure and includes incidents never before seen in a Jackie Chan movie, be they moral ambiguities or stark moments of sex and violence. Interestingly, the American version released by Miramax delivers longer takes of the racier and bloodier scenes excised from the Chinese prints, including a steamy encounter in an elevator between portly Hung and his hooker girlfriend (Christine Ng Wing-Mei).
Respected character actor Kent Cheng somehow manages to evoke some sympathy for the odious Hung (“Every night I wake up from my dreams feeling that I have let myself down”). Having risked life and limb on a pitifully low salary, Hung feels his only option is to gamble everything on a foolish, amoral, get-rich-quick scheme. The first words spoken in the movie, discussing lottery tickets, underline the criminal’s belief that life itself is a lottery and they should seize every chance without any moral qualms. By contrast, Inspector Chan puts his life on the line to protect and serve, and though his principles remain wholly admirable, he constantly teeters on the psychological knife’s edge. Traumatised by a shootout that went awry, Chan receives counselling from a sexy psychiatrist played by Taiwanese actress Poon Ling-Ling, who features more prominently in the film’s Taiwanese cut, although her scenes feel like a concession to cop thriller clichés. Another weak link is the score which has a sub-Michael Kamen vibe.
Throughout the film, Kirk Wong displays his facility with social satire, notably Chan’s struggle to report the kidnapping-in-progress to the police hotline and the unsympathetic depiction of Yat Fei-Wong as a self-serving tycoon who blithely cheats his workers and clients. Although the film strives for seriousness, it is far from dour and includes an especially amusing gag where Chan asks his undercover officers to move a few steps back and suddenly a whole crowd complies (“Not all of you!”). The British-educated Kirk Wong began his career in the fashion industry, then later worked at Anglia Television and the Covent Garden Opera House before making his HK movie debut with the triad thriller The Club (1981) based on the hit television series starring a young Andy Lau. Aside from the innovative dystopian science fiction kung fu film Health Warning (1983) and the period gangster film Gunmen (1988), Wong’s most acclaimed works have been darkly satirical cop thrillers, including Organized Crime & Triad Bureau (1994) and Rock N’Roll Cop (1994) which comprise a trilogy of sorts with Crime Story and share a similar skill at detailing police procedures in depth and melding ethical debates with breakneck action, enhanced by sharp editing and superb cinematography by the great Arthur Wong with a psychological use of colour. After his failed bid for a Hollywood career with the offbeat crime comedy The Big Hit (1998) starring Mark Wahlberg, Kirk Wong has been silent of late - aside from a made-for-television spy thriller, The Disciples (2000) that sounds unpromising given he adopted the director’s guild pseudonym: Alan Smithee.
In fact, Jackie Chan actually dismissed Kirk Wong towards the end of Crime Story’s shoot and took up the directorial reins himself, delivering more of the frantic, fast-paced action his fans expected, including his wince-inducing plunge through a ship’s cargo hold (where he hits every metal rung on his way to the bottom), a bravura punch-up with a tough talking triad, and his spectacular rescue of a child from a burning, collapsing building - filmed in a real Kowloon slum scheduled for demolition and featuring one of the most spectacular explosions put on film. Chan also re-shot the film’s ending at the behest of the real Nina Wang (one of the richest women in the world and something of a fun-loving local celebrity), opting for an unlikelier denouement but without sacrificing the prevailingly downbeat mood. Released on DVD by the now sadly defunct Hong Kong Legends label, extras include interviews with action director Bruce Law and scriptwriter Teddy Chen, now a notable filmmaker in his own right including the Jackie Chan vehicle The Accidental Spy (2001). The disc also features an invaluable audio commentary from the great Bey Logan who, true to form, contributes a wealth of fascinating detail.